The story of the New Yorker dinosaurs shows the problems of the heroic male paleontologist.


A fossilized fish

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Under the hot sun of the desert, a man carefully scrapes old stones. A weathered fedora offers what goes for shade in these difficult conditions. With each carefully controlled scratch, a lost world appears: a time of monsters never seen before, the strata seeming to radiate potential.

This is not a scene of the next Indiana Jones movie; it's the kind of breathtaking prose novel that Douglas Preston uses in his latest New York feature film, starring a controversial fossil site that hit social media last week, just like the asteroid that closed the Cretaceous. It turns out that it is also exactly the kind of depraved, macho and lonely stereotypical legend that must disappear.

Preston's story is about as bloated as a Brontosaurus, but here's the basic story: In 2012, a fossil collector presented to graduate student in paleontology, Robert DePalma, a site that looked like such a fossil, about 66 million years ago. strata of North Dakota. The delicate fish found there seemed to be humiliating at first. But, Preston writes, while DePalma worked, he found more and more. In addition to the fish, there were trees felled, remains of marine organisms where there should have been no bone, dinosaur bones, dinosaur eggs and dinosaur feathers. DePalma hypothesized that the site was created when the huge asteroid struck the Yucatan peninsula, throwing debris into the air, which then rained on the site when seismic waves dulled in a plane. of local water, killing the inhabitants before burying them. This would have occurred in the minutes and hours following the impact, recording death in the last moments of the Cretaceous to a degree never seen elsewhere. DePalma named the site Tanis as a nod to the plot of the Egyptian city lost in The adventurers of the lost arch.

The wild claims of this story were a surprise, all the more so as rumor circulated that a newspaper was explaining what had been discovered in Tanis, North Dakota. Press offices rushed to send notices to reporters on Friday about the initial scientific description of the site, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lifted its embargo earlier than expected, although the newspaper -was not made available to all researchers until Monday. Who had the paper, who did not do it, why the leak happened, and if the study confirmed what that insane article was promising to keep palaeontologists busy with social media for days. For my part, it was difficult to contain my disbelief at a story that seemed to become more and more foreign.

As commented a paleontologist, there is something in the story to hate for everyone in this area. Given the lifting of the embargo, Twitter science was frantic with questions, criticisms, defenses and hot plugs. Now that the document has finally been released – a sedimentological study of a dozen authors in which the only dinosaur bone revealed is a patinated hip fragment – there are still questions about the fantastic claims of the New York play, the ethic of the fossils can be technically loaned to museums from DePalma to know if the more revealing affirmations of the New York play are true.

Science is a discussion of theories, not a library of papers.

In all the comings and goings, there is a particular point that really annoys me. Readers were instantly fascinated by the history of New York. And why should not they? It's an adventure story in the desert about a brave scientist who wants to tell what happened on one of the most infamous days in Earth's history. Why non-avian dinosaurs and many other life forms disappeared 66 million years ago has an almost universal interest, especially since the next mass extinction in the world seems well engaged. Which means that this has been an opportunity to showcase the best of the field, to tell a rich story that brings together all the different voices and perspectives working on paleontology in the 21st century to bear. We did not have this story. Instead, we had the same sexist talk about a guy on a fossil site who will understand everything.

Do not mistake yourself. There is nothing wrong with a little Indiana Jones cosplay. I can tell you, after my years of fieldwork in the Southwest, that paleontologists are not old dusty fossils. They also have funny bones. But there's something else under DePalma's new romance, a struggling young man fighting the ugly university system, flexing shirtless under the North Dakota sun to wrap plaster bandages around titan bones. off. This not only perpetuates the solitary trope of genius that is patently false, but it also underscores the deeply rooted problem of paleontology with male privilege.

The research and study of extinct life has always been described as a science of man. The contributions of pioneering paleontologists such as Philpot sisters and Mary Anning are often eclipsed in historical accounts by personalities such as grumpy British anatomist Richard Owen; the cantanerous and bellicose experts of E.S. Bone Wars Cope and O.C. Swamp of the late 19th century; and perhaps the first prototype of the modern macho man on the ground for his exploits in Mongolia, Roy Chapman Andrews. The Dinomania wave of the 1980s and 1990s saw many young palaeontologists and fossil fans grow up, with documentaries featuring bearded and plaid experts like Jack Horner and Bob Bakker on several occasions, giving an even more prominent image. by the Alan Grant of fiction Jurassic Park franchise. The picture of who is a paleontologist is has long been definitely masculine, pale and covered with dust, never without his trusty wide-brimmed hat, a trend that continues now with the stabbing of the New Yorker against the public. Preston's story plunges into mythology. As he himself admits, the story of DePalma seems to him to be a real version of his novel Tyrannosaur Canyon, in which a scientific scientist must defend the discovery of the dinosaurs of the century against conspiratorial forces of the genre more often evoked in a novel by Tom Clancy. The tropes were already there to be refreshed.

It would be one thing if the scholarly, heroic, scientific plot, which makes an astonishing discovery was one of many types of stories about how we have progressed in this area. But this is the only case we have ever had with paleontology, and in this case, the hype simply does not match the published results. The claims that made New York history so popular and shareable do not all appear in the newspaper this week. DePalma's team said it cut some of them so that the first newspaper would be published more quickly. DePalma claimed that researchers should only talk about what is in the document, as if a mass cemetery of dinosaurs had not been mentioned at all. Yet how could anyone do not talk about what was supposed to be a dinosaur boneyard full of fossils of almost all species, up to their eggs and their plumage?

Preston's pessimistic article was a sloppy and sensational display, which was presented to the public before the scientific results could be published, discussed and questioned. The possibilities and uncertainties have been reformulated as facts that the rest of the scientific community should simply face. That should not be how science, or science journalism, works.

The reason for embargoes is to give journalists and researchers with whom they speak time to examine new discoveries and determine the story, whether it is worth telling, and if something fishy about what is being presented. This is common practice in scientific news, whether it is dinosaurs or questionable health and psychology information that is part of the science replication crisis. Science is a discussion of theories, not a library of papers.

A longer delay would have made it possible to tell a more detailed story, perhaps that would have involved some of the most diverse voices on the ground that will undoubtedly now investigate and test the fantastic statements made by Preston and DePalma. Much of this work will be done behind the scenes, in laboratories, newspapers and conferences, ripping through the tattered tropes to understand the underlying reality. But this is not a story of scientists trying to retain a young maverick, as Preston's story suggests. Paleontologists want to be excited about such a discovery. But they also want the research done well. It's like the old recommendation of the math class: show your work.

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